There’s no need to wait for a translation; the horrified look on senior engineer Tatsunori Iwasaki is as clear an answer as you could ask for. The question: did Mazda consider playing artificial engine noise through the stereo in order to get the new MX-5 to sound right?
“Oh, no,” says the interpreter, unnecessarily. “No, we did not consider this.”
What Mazda did instead was to add two tiny weights to the rear differential mount in order to create a mid-range vibration intended to give the MX-5 a pleasing tone. The total mass added was less than 20 grams. The engineering work to figure it out took dozens of man-hours. Iwasaki shows me many graphs and diagrams and seems pleased.
This is not a rational thing for a modern car company to be spending precious research and development dollars on. But then again, the MX-5 is not meant to be an entirely rational choice. The original car was tuned to sound like an MGB, as it was intended to faithfully reproduce the spirit and delight of British sportscar ownership without the attendant automotive leprosy. Rev up an old Miata and it sounds fizzy. Rev up the new one and it’s much the same. Well done, Iwasaki.
The way a car sounds is perhaps one of the strangest and most demanding tasks a modern engineer must face.
In the early days, noise was just the byproduct of setting liquid dinosaurs on fire. The 28.5-litre Fiat S76 “Beast of Turin” sounds like hellfire because that’s basically what it was running on. Nobody bothered trying to teach wheeled Beelzebubs to sing because they were all too busy trying not to get dead.
Soon after the Model T arrived and began to democratize speed, people started figuring out that if you made your stock car louder, it would be faster – or at least it would feel faster. Sound quality perhaps wasn’t as much of an issue as volume, but for early hot-rodders, quantity had a quality all its own. Let’s come back to Fiat and take a look at one of the more ridiculous modern cars you can buy.
Carl Abarth started out racing motorcycles in Austria and ended up giving average Italians the chance to lend their little cars an operatic timbre. If you could only dream of a Ferrari, you could still bolt a Abarth-tuned exhaust to the back of your teeny Cinquecento and drive around frightening old ladies and making children grin.
As a descendant, the modern Fiat 500 Abarth checks all the same boxes. Its tiny 1.4-litre turbocharged engine barks to life, grumbling like one of Ferruccio Lamborghini’s tractors. A snarl from a car the size of a shoe: how have they done that? Simple: Fiat hasn’t bothered to bolt a muffler on. There’s the manifold, the turbocharger, and then the back of the car.
As a result, the 500 Abarth is an enormous amount of fun despite having more than a few dynamic foibles. It has charm. It has character. It’s naughty. However, such hooliganism comes with a price.
Imagine you’re in a garage band, and you like to play Stonehenge every single night with the volume cranked up to 11 and the doors open. At some point, one of your neighbours is going to come over and show you how The Who used to finish their sets: by smashing every single instrument in the place. Loud is only fun if you’re in control of the volume knob.
Take the caddish behaviour of the Jaguar F-Type as an example. If you have a car this good-looking, you want it to be able to clear its throat once in a while. In order to get a bit of that throttle-overrun, Jag has had to introduce something it refers to as a “controlled misfire” back into the equation, a little extra squirt of fuel late in the combustion cycle when you lift off the accelerator.
However, that’s only when the exhaust is in sport mode. Like Porsche and Mercedes-AMG, most high-end manufacturers now have electrically controlled bypasses so a car that is quiet around town can be livened up when you get to the mountain passes. Like driving around all the time with your car’s spoiler deployed, using loud mode in the city just makes you look like a bit of a foil-wrapped zucchini.
Let us finish with the Lexus LFA, perhaps the finest sounding car of the modern age. The song that emanates from the trio of exhaust pipes is a banshee wail. Toyota contracted Yamaha to tune the V10’s note to raise the hackles on your neck and tempt your right foot.
But the banshee, in Irish mythology, heralds the death of nobility, and so it is here. Engine sound is still a byproduct of the internal combustion engine, and is really just another form of pollution. We all want our F1 racers to scream and our muscle cars to rumble, but we’d also like to sleep in on a Sunday without a Harley-Davidson farting past at 7 a.m.
So perhaps the future is exterior silence and engine noise piped into the cabin on demand, as BMW does now. Perhaps Tesla will program its next Model S to sound like Spaceball One jumping to plaid. In the all-electric, all-hydrogen future, engineers will only obsess over how to keep tire roar down.
At such a time, maybe you’ll take that now-classic 2016 MX-5 out for a romp in the autumn leaves. And you’ll be glad Iwasaki and his colleagues got it right.
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Courtesy: The Globe And Mail